Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lies We Tell Our Kids, part IV

There's a new poster that looks sorta like this hanging on a bulletin board in the hallway at my kid's daycare.

I hate shit like this. I remember hating shit like this as a kid. I don't want people telling my kid stuff like this, although I know it's inevitable. I also don't want to be that parent who raises hell about every little thing.

The thing is, I don't really think this is a little thing. I think this kind of message, taken together with all the other little lies found in motivational materials for kids, sends a clear message to kids that adults are full of crap. And if there's anything I want to succeed at, it's having an honest and close relationship with my kid. I want her to be able to talk to me about anything, and to trust me and believe what I say. And feeding them shit like this from the very beginning seems like the last thing you should do to accomplish this.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I think we should be soul-crushingly honest and cynical and discourage them from exploring their world and taking on their own projects and being creative and searching for their own passions. And I also think that we have to be age-appropriate and be careful to discuss things with them when they're ready. But that doesn't mean we should outright lie to them when they're young. I just don't think we should tell them that somehow everything will magically fall into their laps if they just think positively enough or work hard enough or are pretty/smart/witty/popular enough. Because life just isn't like that, and the more honest adults are with you about the things they've learned and the mistakes they've made and the realities they've encountered in their lives the better off you'll be. And if nothing else, at least you'll have one person in your life who's consistently honest with you, and doesn't just tell you what they think you want to hear. There's gotta be some value in that.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


  1. I always particularly hated all the positive thinking crap that was big when I was in middle school. It seems like we would want kids to learn how to make an accurate assessment of the situation they're in. It just doesn't work in real life to try to ignore your problems and pretend like there are no obstacles in front of you. How can you overcome obstacles if you can't even acknowledge their existence?

  2. Anonymous12/04/2009

    Who said there weren’t any obstacles in life? Teaching children that they can achieve great things if they really want to and work for it doesn’t have to mean that there won’t be challenges just that they should look beyond the challenges and excel. What is the alternative; should we teach all the girls who live on the wrong side of that tracks to not even bother because statics show that they won’t be able to overcome their surroundings and will end up pregnant before they graduate high school. There are many examples (including our president) of people who dared to dream big and look beyond their circumstances and have been successful in doing so.

  3. Anonymous,

    I think there's a huge difference between encouraging kids to work hard and try to overcome obstacles, and telling them that they can acheive anything they dream. For instance, I dream I'm flying all the time... I think Rachel was pretty clear to say that she doesn't think we should discourage them from working hard and having ambitious goals. But that's different from telling them that they can do *anything.*

  4. First of all I'm 100% certain that Rachel loves her kid and only wants the best for her. That said, I'm not getting this post. Someone needs to explain to me how much of the life we need to figuratively "beat out " of little kids before they have any clue about what their possibilities might be? What is the downside of allowing little kids to consider everything? What's wrong with letting them dream about being something amazing? I guess at some point these kids will realize they can't be everything they imagined, but frankly that's OK too, because that's kind of life. None of us are ever able to do everything we wanted to, but part of life is being able to adjust to that reality. It's part of learning & growing up. From my perspective, little kids (I'm talking under five years old or so), should be able to dream and be as goofy as they want. Life's realities will catch up to them soon enough. Let them be little goofs while they still think it is normal.

    Maybe some of you have missed it or haven't lived it yet, but one of the biggest problems we have in the world is people having negative self-images and how those self-images manifest in real life. From where do you suppose most people acquire these self-images? I think it's pretty safe to say their environment, parents and / or mentors. Either their parents create a healthy environment in which these little goofs feel free to think openly, dream, try new things, fail and then try something else…or they can concentrate on what the little shits can't do. That way the poor little goofs will grow up thinking they can't do much of anything because life has always been about what they can't do versus what they can. Strange Days Indeed.

    So…is it the right thing to early on in life start telling little kids what their limitations are and what they can't do? I'll just say that if you have the opportunity to impact a little person's world in this way don't kid yourself, what you do will impact them forever. So I think it makes the most sense to let them dream and consider how great their lives could be versus telling them that they can't do whatever.

    All of this said, if you are in a position of authority over another human being and are intent upon programming them to follow a certain dogma you probably can't start early enough. Plenty of case studies out there on this issue…Religious Fundamentalism, Nazism, Feminism or whatever, you name it. I guess the person in authority should honestly examine their true motives for the child. One of the natural risks of this process is that if the adult in position of authority has not succeeded in life at the level they feel they were entitled to and feel a third party person or entity is to blame then their progeny may well be programmed to assume this is how the world works when in reality it is just a manifestation of their parents inability to live life in a way that works for them. We have all kinds of examples of parents passing their anger & failure mentality on to their kids. Come to Long Beach some time and check out the local gang culture. It Rocks.


  5. Burn,

    I agree with you that negative self-image and negative self-talk is a huge obstacle. And I understand and appreciate that this is the problem this kind of propaganda is aimed at. I really do. But in my experience this is the totally wrong approach to building confidence and self-esteem in kids. You might read my earlier posts on the topic for more insight.

    I tutored kids of all ages for 11 years, and then taught at the alternative high school for 2. I can tell you that these kids have heard so much of the "always remember you're special, just like everyone else" and "you can do anything" shtick so many times that it's either meaningless to them, or makes them totally cynical and suspicious of things well-meaning adults say. A kid knows when there's something they're not that great at. And having an adult heap empty praise on them is counter-productive. They also know (when they get a little older, as you noted) that there are some things they probably won't be able to do. I dreamed of being a pilot as a kid, but I don't have 20/20 vision. I was a promising athlete, and I fucked up my knee big time and lost an athletic scholarship. These things happen, and it's simply not true that if you can dream it you can do it. What kids really need is specific encouragement and praise for the things they are really good at, for the hard work they've done on a project that doesn't come as easy to them, etc. But this takes work on the part of the adult, and requires that you get to know the kids you're caring for, and give them specific feedback, praise, encouragement, honest assessments, and support in developing the skills they're lacking. But it's way easier to just slap some sappy poster on the wall or repeat some dumb motivational phrase over and over again than to really engage with kids and give them the personal feedback and encouragement they need.

    This is the dynamic to which I object. Spewing this kind of nonsense just teaches kids that adults are either liars or are so hopelessly out of touch that they couldn't possibly be helpful. And when they learn that, they seek out the ones who will be honest with them and help them find their strengths and discover something to be passionate about. I know this from experience both as a kid who found the BS really odd and unsettling, and later as the tutor and teacher who these kids sought out for realistic advice and encouragement. I'm not trying to discourage anyone from chasing their dreams. I'm just advocating that adults take a more realistic and effective approach to helping kids explore their world and work toward their goals.

  6. And the truth is, it's good to have a backup plan. I remember my peers and I feeling so weird when we were told to apply to our first choice of colleges and then 2 or 3 more just in case. Kind of like it was the first time anyone had suggested we might fail at something. And the example of a knee injury is also good, because no matter how good a kid is at something, they shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. You do need to have a backup plan, so getting kids to develop several different options they would like to pursue is probably a good idea.

  7. Rachel,

    Yep. If this generic positive "stuff" isn't accompanied with some sort of oversight, discipline & learning process then it can screw up these kids. I also agree that empty praise to anyone when his or her performance doesn't back it up is the worst thing that can happen as it totally sends the wrong message. If someone doesn't put in the effort, fails to perform and is still told that they are great it will most definitely negatively impact their future performance…be it academic or professional.

    Here is the context of my concern. I had amazing parents, who in spite of me being a total pain in the ass when I was a kid still positioned me to succeed. Based upon your posts and professional success I'd say you were fortunate in the parenting department also. I used to think that my upbringing was normal. Upon going to college and entering the working world I discovered how lucky I was. Too many people had true losers or loons for parents, were told they were stupid / ugly / fat or whatever other untrue bull shit and had never heard a positive word about their potential when they were young. These are the kids that need to know that there are some amazing things they could possibly do. My point is that if these poor little goofs have crappy parents or guardians it could be that the only place they will hear about their possibilities will be at school or other environments you describe.

    I'm 100% on board with being sick of primarily middle / upper middle class parents who think their kids shouldn't get anything but an A in a class and think it makes sense to give every kid that plays little league a trophy just for showing up. These overbearing "helicopter parents" that are so concerned about their child's self-image that they believe that never allowing them to fail or have any conflict in their lives somehow will help their offspring in the future are not only misinformed but are endangering the future success of their children.

    I see you've taken some shit off others on this blog for posting sports scores, so I won't dwell on this, other than to say that I went to college on a football scholarship and although you blew out your knee, our end results were kind of the same. You had to change goals due to your injury and I had to change goals because at the end of the day I just wasn't good enough to go on to the next level. Either way we had to recognize that as much as we might have wanted to exist in that world we couldn't go on and we had to change goals. I think the aspect of athletics that is the most valuable is that you learn that you are going to get knocked on your ass frequently and you have to get up and get back at it. The people I know that succeed in life understand this reality and don't mistake a temporary ass kicking for failure as a person or a professional. It's probably the best lesson I've ever learned.

    I've been pretty clear on this blog concerning my issues with feminism. That said I think Title IX, specifically as it relates to women in sports, has been pretty much positive. Although I'm concerned about the government funded Title IX bureaucracy that has been created and risks in other areas I think it is mostly offset by the positive impact that young women receive from competing in organized sports. This is particularly true if these women transfer the values they learn in sports to real life. In fact I think this will eventually narrow the gap between feminists and people like me, as long as it isn't used as a forum for other agendas.


  8. Burn,

    I would add that athletic involvement is especially helpful to girls because of all the body image shit our culture imposes on them. Girls are surrounded by implicit messages that their bodies are decorative objects for male enjoyment, that you have to look like Barbie to be loveable, etc. In my experience, being active in sports gives you a sort of body confidence that our culture is better at instilling in boys. I never had a lot of the body image issues some of my friends did, and I think a lot of it had to do with my experience in athletics. And this kind of confidence can be contagious and affect other areas of your life.

    As to being lucky in the parent department... I've come to think of it as a privilege - an unearned benefit - that helps you in many ways that you're often not even aware of. Just having parents who model basic life skills is huge. And I think good teachers and tutors and mentors can figure out pretty quickly which kids need this extra attention and praise and guidance. A lot of the kids at the alternative school were so hungry for attention from a consistent and responsible adult, that after awhile you felt like teaching them the course material was the least of what you were doing. I had the same experience tutoring - the state would pay for tutoring for foster kids, and they almost always used it, even when they didn't need academic help. They just loved having an adult spend a whole hour with them, talking to them, focusing on them, encouraging them, etc. And all of this made me realize how fortunate I really was in the parent department, so I do feel a lot of compassion for those who aren't so lucky.

  9. Rachel - 1 of 2

    Athletics helps ALL young people gain confidence in themselves, which in my mind is the most important success habit for any person to acquire. Once someone becomes a confident person it really doesn't matter too much what sex they are or what happens to them because they are going to have the mind set that temporary failure is no big deal. Unless of course young women are conditioned that they are eternal victims and they can never overreach in their victimhood or pathological need to be treated specially.

    If sports help girls become confident and not give too much of a shit about what others think about their bodies then it's a win. The truth is that in spite of what mass marketers may pitch to the public, blondes with big boobs aren't the only women considered attractive by men. Trust me. I think it's important for all young people to understand that they cannot keep everyone happy relative to how they "are" and there is no point in trying. Everyone in the world doesn't have to think you are attractive. No point in caring about it. The sooner individuals stop trying to keep everyone else happy concerning their body image, the sooner they'll have an opportunity to view themselves as part of the solution instead of being victimized.

    The nature of athletics helps mitigate body issues in any case. I'm not signed up for men taking the hit for all women's issues with their bodies. Everyone wants to be attractive and feel loved. Women don't have a corner on that market. Your comments clearly reflect your lack of consideration or concern for men.

    Don't you think that young boys feel huge personal and social pressure to make the football, basketball team or whatever else that will make them feel more accepted in their social group? How is this pressure and / or disappointment less important to a boy than a negative vibe a young woman encounters relative to her body image or whatever? Frankly, it's this lack of introspection that hurts feminism in general.

    As you know, if we live in United States we are privileged relative to the rest of the world, period. It's just a matter of degree.

    The world is filled with "privileged" people that are total screw-ups. I actually have some siblings that fit that bill perfectly. So…just because a person is privileged doesn't mean they are uniquely capable of adding value to society. Certainly those of us that are privileged are well positioned to contribute. That said, there are many real world examples of people that were far less advantaged than either you or I that have contributed far more to society than either of us probably ever will. So…I take the position that Privilege isn't the issue, it's all about Character. This may sound petty, but it isn't. It's the difference between people living their lives blaming others or going out, grabbing life and living it. It also allows people to Own their lives and their Outcomes.

  10. Rachel - 2 of 2

    I certainly agree that to the extent you sign up for this view of Privilege you are creating a never ending queue of new victims that instead of trying to take personal responsibility for making their lives better and more valued will instead look to justify their lack of success in life due to the privilege of others. I've been particularly fascinated by observing the dynamic between Feminists, whose movement over the past forty years is considered by anyone with a brain to have been an amazing success and other "persecuted classes". The problem is that now that feminists have leveraged the victim model to near perfection there are all sorts of other victims lined up to claim superior victimhood and they are using your methods to do so. It's pretty amazing. Be it the GLBTQ folks, minority feminists, male feminists or whoever they are all claiming the "high ground" of victimhood. Its pretty sad and fucked up. It is sort of ironically cool though…you feminist chicks getting shot with your own arrows. The only thing you goofs can agree on is that men & the Patriarchy are the one constant, evil presence. I suppose it keeps you from dealing with and solving your own conflicts.

    Frankly, given your extensive teaching and tutoring background I'd be interested in your perspective if there is something particularly compelling and heartfelt concerning plying your trade with young women versus young men. Based upon your life view and prior posts I'm thinking that you probably deliver information differently to girls versus boys. I don't think this is particularly surprising but I do think it goes a long way in explaining your perspective as a professional educator and provides some clarity as to why boys aren't really digging school now and we've all seen the shift in graduation rates of males versus females in post-secondary education. Seems your strategy is working.

    Your Buddy,

  11. Anonymous12/29/2009


    You are trying very hard to misinterpret everything Rachel says. She didn't say that having body confidence is not important for boys, or that making the team isn't central to their identities (in some cases). She just pointed out that our culture puts a lot of toxic crap on the shoulders of girls when it comes to body image, and athletic involvement is good for counteracting that. It's generally thought to be a given that boys will be athletic in our culture, so that's probably why you don't hear a lot of feminists talking about how sports can help boys. Everyone already takes that to be true, so there's no point in trying to convince them of it.

  12. Burn,

    When I'm tutoring or working with a small group of students I do teach them differently, but the differences don't tend to fall along gender lines. One of the benefits of tutoring is that you can figure out the student's learning style and adapt your explanations to it. And in my experience there are a wide range of different learning styles, but they don't tend to follow any particular pattern with regard to gender. I know you're convinced that I think boys and men are worthless etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. And we've been down this road before, so I'm not wasting my time saying things that you seem to be incapable of hearing.

  13. Hallelujah! I am so irritated by this American ideology - "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" crap. It should say: "You can do MANY things if you explore your talents but also fully learn to acknowledge and accept your built-in limitations too."
    I firmly believe selling kids on the "you can do anything" mantra actually greatly INCREASES the possibility of depression and feeling of guilt and failure later in life when they grow up and discover that their "simple life" is making them feel shameful. Somehow because they have not championed success as a CEO or an actor or a pro football player its their own fault because they "didn't dream big enough."
    BOO! Thumbs down!

  14. Wow, I honestly thought it was just me that hated that crap. Here in Baltimore, MD, there is the "Believe" campaign. Believe WHAT? Don't even get me started.

    Yeh, it's and empty, pretty phrase that doesn't even MEAN anything! Like you said, life just doesn't work that way. Some people will seemingly just float through life and everything will appear to be peachy and others will work their asses off from birth till death and still have nothing. THAT is life. You make of it what you can and strive to be the best that you can be. But you certainly don't just have rainbows and unicorns pop into your life because you want it or believe it will happen. *snort*